Monday, July 20, 2015

CRIKEY: What really went on at Brandis’ terror talkfest



The bluster of stuffy ministers was all the cameras showed. What you may have missed was the diligent, entrepreneurial work of savvy hackers. 

Nestled in a quiet corner of Walsh Bay in the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a row of old grey-brown buildings that look like something out of the Great Depression. One of these has two doors that occasionally open to allow well-dressed persons to enter or leave. Once the doors shut, the building is camouflaged among its neighbours. This is the Pier One Hotel. You could drive past it a few hundred times and hardly notice it was there.

But if you approached it during the second half of last week, you’d find the place overrun with people in NSW and Federal Police uniforms and those scary 007-style earpiece thingies. Take a walk inside (if you could get past the strict security), and you’d find plenty of blokes (and the odd female) in serious suits gathered for an important symposium.

And indeed they were. For this was Australia’s Regional Summit to Counter Violent Extremism. Or CVE, as it’s now referred to. Not quite an acronym, but less confusing than ISIS or ISIL or IS or Daesh.

Also present were lots of camera crews, journalists, backbenchers, a few ministers and the Prime Minister. And zero Indonesian politicians. If you stood outside and relied on the daily papers, you’d think the entire summit was about building massive walls around civilisation to keep the IS hordes out.. But if you managed to attend any of the workshops or spoke to the delegates or were even just a fly on the wall, the message would have been a bit garbled.

The real point of the conference was diverting vulnerable young people from IS. As we all know, millions of Australian Muslim kiddies are slipping out of their Lakemba homes to join Caliph Ibrahim without first seeking written permission from the Attorney-General.

Young people are very vulnerable, especially on social media. IS uses Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media to attract young people to its message. These young people might then head off to Iraq or Syria to join the caliphate. Or these young people might do something nasty back home.

In case you hadn’t noticed, it was all about young people. People of the same age bracket as, say, my nephews or Tony Abbott’s daughters. Young people who didn’t address any workshops or seminars, whose opinions weren’t sought on why they might be tempted to join “the Death Cult” (and no, I’m not talking about the heavy metal band from Zurich). Young people who were almost completely absent from the conference. Almost.

Huddled in a quiet room was a small group engaged in the HackAbout project. Yes, it was partnered with the Attorney-General’s Department and the US State Department. Yes, two of the organisers were former US State Department staffers. But this wasn’t about governments. Rather it was about young people harnessing their energy, expertise and passion to find innovative ways to counter the narratives of violent extremists. All violent extremists.

(Among the older participants was a former white supremacist who was, in fact, part of the winning team. Another of them was yours truly, who has had some experience with what some may call “Islamofascism”).

The theory behind the “hackathon” was to create a product that would combat violent extremism and bigotry. Why both? Because they are, effectively, two sides of the same coin. Because they feed off each other.

The participant hackers (or hacks, if you like) included uni students with gaming, graphic design and IT experience. The elder statesmen and stateswomen included Anne Aly of Curtin University and two entrepreneurial types from the US, one of whom founded the world’s largest online directory of halal restaurants. Eat your heart out, Cory Bernardi.



The result of three days of effort was four products, including an app and a game. At this stage, two products will be incubated for further development.

The four groups made a business case for their product to summit delegates. The presentations were also streamed to a global audience who also voted for the winning product. My group’s idea came third, and I take full responsibility for none of it. The winning group, led by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who works as a FIFO mechanical engineer on oil rigs, came up with a product called Pentor. You might think it’s a new anti-depressant, but actually it’s an app that operates like Tinder, except you’re searching for a mentor and not someone to engage in horizontal folk dancing.

And what did I learn from my HackAbout experience? Well for starters, never engage in such activity when on your second round of antibiotics. But more importantly, I am an old man getting older. I have a lot to learn from those younger than I, and so do out politicians. Because while the delegates were giving speeches, the young folk were developing strategies and products that were tailored for young people to help them shape their lives, without reaching out to violent extremists. No homes were raided. No passports cancelled. No control orders were necessary.

First published in Crikey on 16 June 2015.

OPINION: Why is Bronwyn Bishop meddling in matters that don't concern her?


In case you hadn't noticed, Canberra is not the capital of Britain . We do speak something resembling English, and our beloved Prime Minister was born in London. Australia shares many similarities with Mother England in our major institutions – the common law, a parliamentary democracy and a strong commitment to winning the Ashes.

Our lower house of Parliament is called the House of Representatives. The idea of referring to average Aussies as "Commons" isn't something the drafters of our constitution were too fond of. We also don't have Lords in our country, nor are Senators seen as Lords. And please, nobody mention Knights and Dames.

Our House of Representatives has a Speaker who presides over all meetings of the House. Unlike in the British House of Commons, our Speaker isn't so independent that she has to leave her political party and still needs to contest elections. Bronwyn Bishop remains the Member for Mackellar on Sydney's Northern Beaches, her seat next door to that of Tony Abbott's seat of Warringah. In his preselection speech, Abbott famously asked delegates to
... place an Abbott next to a Bishop.
The Speaker can also attend party meetings. But that's about it. The Speaker is supposed to be impartial, to speak for the House and the whole House. And the House is the place where the executive, the ministers of the Crown, are to be made accountable. That can happen during Question Time but it can also happen in committees.

The Commonwealth produced a colourful booklet entitled The Speaker of the House of Representatives 2nd Edition in 2008. You can find on page 5 of that booklet the following statement:
... the Speaker is the servant of the House and not of the Crown/executive.
If the executive is making decisions or attempting to implement policies which are the subject of heated debate, it is not the Speaker's role to act as a spokesman for the executive or to defend the proposed decision or policy.

The Abbott government doesn't need Bronwyn Bishop to defend its policies on national television, whether on Q&A or elsewhere. It is not Bronwyn Bishop's role to tell us how wonderful the executive are in developing aged care or national security policies. Currently this role is one the ALP and the Greens are fulfilling quite nicely, thank you very much.

So why did Bronwyn so quickly jump in to defend the contentious policies of the executive in the face of criticism from the government's handpicked former National Security Monitor and the Human Rights Commissioner? Why meddle in matters that didn't concern her?

Ian Hancock's 2007 book The Liberals: The NSW Division 1945-2000 mentions Bishop's period as state president of the NSW Liberals In 1985, succeeding John Valder.
Like Valder, Bronwyn Bishop was an interventionist state president; unlike him, she imposed no limits on her interventionism. No president had ever before occupied an office in the secretariat, and not one of her predecessors had treated the job as full time … Bishop was both a chairman of the board and a managing director. Virtually no matter was too trivial to escape her attention.
Bishop appointed Graeme Starr as state director. Starr's assessment of Bishop?
The distinguishing feature of her presidency was the endemic factionalism which brought the party to its lowest point in history.
Division and unnecessary intervention are not exactly the features one would expect from a Speaker of the House. Nor would one expect the Speaker to lecture a statutory officer to resign and run for office. If this is the quality of our elected representatives, our Human Rights Commissioner should remain where she is.

Gillian Triggs isn't the only person to be subjected to ridiculous attacks. Even someone as insignificant as yours truly was described by Bishop in September 2005 under parliamentary privilege as a
... Muslim activist known for his offensive behaviour to women.
She continued:
... I totally refute his statements but, as he has not resorted to bomb throwing, I guess we can handle his accusation.
A few days later, word of my behaviour to women spread far and wide and I was invited to become a White Ribbon Day Ambassador campaigning to eliminate violence against women. ASIO hasn't yet contacted me about throwing bombs. 

And speaking of women, a month earlier Bronwyn Bishop had this to say on the National Interest program on Radio National: 

Now this morning on a debate with a Muslim lady, she said she felt free being a Muslim, and I would simply say that in Nazi Germany, Nazis felt free and comfortable. That is not the sort of definition of freedom that I want for my country. 

Ms Bishop was, on that occasion, defending her great contribution to national security – calling for the banning of girls wearing headscarves in state schools. Despite periods in both Houses of Parliament, Ms Bishop's parliamentary career has been anything but stellar. She has never held a cabinet position. At best, she was a junior minister in the Howard government for the first two terms before being dropped. 

And now Ms Bishop may have the honour of being remembered as the House of Representatives' most partisan and partial Speaker. 

Irfan Yusuf is PhD candidate at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. First published in the Canberra Times on 19 June 2015.